By  on February 7, 2007

MILAN — Donatella Versace feels completely at ease walking down the runway for her post-show applause. It's receiving awards that makes her nervous.

That explains the mix of fear and excitement Versace says will accompany her on Thursday when she will receive the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style award and accept one for her late brother, Gianni Versace. The recognition for their contributions to fashion and entertainment comes almost a decade after Gianni Versace was murdered outside his villa in Miami, in July 1997.

"It's a great honor for me to receive this prize, especially because I'm getting it in Hollywood, which is my favorite place in the world," Versace said. "I miss Gianni very much. He deserves this award and I only wish he could have received it in person."

"The house of Versace has an inspired legacy of being an influencer of culture in all its forms, for more than two decades," Peri Ellen Berne, chairman of the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style, said in a statement. "The Versace brand is synonymous with cutting-edge, trendsetting style, glamour and sensuality that has earned them an iconic place in fashion history."

Certainly, Gianni Versace, who founded the company in 1978, established a significant connection with the movie industry during his lifetime and was a pioneer in exploiting the allure of the red carpet, both as a media tool and as a cash machine.

"Gianni used to joke about how the only dust he wanted to stick was stardust," smiled a slinky Donatella Versace in head-to-toe black, during an interview at the house's Via Gesú palazzo.

Stick it did, and she certainly wasn't going to wipe it away. Once she took the creative reins of the fashion house, Donatella Versace carried on where Gianni Versace left off, which is demonstrated by her knockout evening gowns that are Oscar-night favorites.

"Hollywood, especially young Hollywood, is so influential and inspirational because on the red carpet these actresses are so well put together; their hairstyle, earrings and makeup all make for a perfect image," she explained.

The celebrity factor was a tried-and-true formula for both siblings, but Versace admitted that from other perspectives she had to adjust her focus."A budget? Gianni had no idea what it was," she said with a deep chuckle. "Times were so different. We're talking of the booming Eighties and everything was easy and doable. I remember Gianni would order stacks of clothes five days before the show and we had fun mixing and matching. Today, everything is so much more calculated."

She joked that the advent of the big luxury groups like Gucci Group and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and cutthroat competition drastically changed the landscape, making the going tougher.

So, after a series of ups and downs — in the beginning, her collections garnered mixed reviews, she faced personal drug-related issues and was forced to close Versus and halt the house's couture shows — Versace has found her balance.

Proving the point are three standout collections in a row, a new, brighter and airier store concept, a fast-growing accessories business and a company that is on track to post a pretax profit for 2006 with expected sales of $332 million. There even is talk again about a possible initial public offering, which could be discussed by the Versace family shareholders as soon as this year.

A chunk of the credit for the turnaround goes to chief executive Giancarlo Di Risio, who joined Versace in September 2004 with a cleanup mission that included cutting costs, growing the accessories business and focusing on the signature line.

"About three years ago, when I felt much more in control, I had the urge to change everything around me, including the decor of my office and of the stores. Everything needed to be brighter and more luminous, lighter. Enough with Baroque," recalled Versace. "So I hired Giancarlo, who brought a whole new mentality and new people, which is exactly what I needed to really go forth with my decision to change the collections. In hindsight, I should have done it earlier."

In many ways, though, Versace was thrown into the lion's cage in the post-Gianni era.

"I was very insecure because I knew that all eyes were on me and the recurring question that echoed in my head was people asking, ‘Will she make it?'" she said.Versace agreed the raised eyebrows were certainly legitimate.

"The bond between Gianni and me was special because our relationship was honest, stimulating and uninterested," the designer said. "I can tell you, I never expected it to be so hard."

Initially, she added, her gut instinct told her to walk in Gianni's shoes, until "I realized that I wasn't Gianni."

That epiphany marked the start of something new.

"It was fundamental. I knew I had some leeway when it came to mistakes, but I couldn't make too many, for the company's sake and future," said Versace.

In yin-yang style advice, some people told her to continue to follow Gianni in design, while others urged her to forge her own path. "I was confused and didn't know what to do because the Versace style is in my DNA, but I felt the need to evolve," she said.

As she did so, her design ethos began to grow.

"I changed the way I want to see women dressed. I don't think they need to turn heads at all costs, but they can attract with their mannerisms, attitudes or movements," she said. "A dress shouldn't overshadow a woman, so my hand is softer, more sophisticated, for a customer who doesn't try too hard."

Trends, she added, were important as long as there were no U-turns every six months. "It would be like reneging on what you did a season ago," she said. "You need to stick to your style guidelines."

Those guidelines are now fairly firmly established in Versace's mind. As she has grown as a designer and put her personal life in order, she has become more confident about what the house of Versace stands for. She continues to seek inspiration in art, film and the streets, but increasingly goes on instinct, as well. "For example, Versace has always been known for super-cinched dresses, but I don't feel that necessity anymore because I like soft fabrics that fall closer to the body," she explained.

Work aside, Versace exudes a newly found joie de vivre."I changed my friendships and I'm open to rebuilding a personal relationship. I feel very strong and motivated," she said, adding with a laugh, "Anyone want my cell phone number?"

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